AT&T looking to buy more spectrum for 5G

AT&T sign
AT&T says the U.S. is already the world leader in 5G, and AT&T "is the leader among U.S. carriers." (FierceWireless)

AT&T isn’t taking a stand on whether the commission should approve the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, but it is letting the FCC know that it is fully engaged in the 5G arms race and will be acquiring more spectrum through secondary market transactions and future auctions.

AT&T said in no uncertain terms that the U.S. is already the world leader in 5G—and lo and behold, AT&T is the leader among the U.S. carriers, according to its comments to the FCC (PDF). “AT&T has been busy laying the groundwork for its 5G deployment since 2016, and it is poised to introduce mobile 5G service in twelve cities by the end of the year,” the operator said.

Of course, every national U.S. operator promises to be first with 5G in some way, and AT&T's filing points out not only its own 5G progress but that of its competitors as well. 

Interestingly, it does not mention the Analysys Mason report CTIA published in April showing China with a narrow lead in overall 5G readiness, ahead of South Korea and the U.S. At that time, CTIA said there was still time for the U.S. to catch up if it took quick action to allocate more midband spectrum and facilitate 5G deployments.

It does point to a new IHS Markit study that finds North America seems to be leading the race to launch commercial 5G services by the end of 2018, with South Korea to follow in 2019. 

Meanwhile, both T-Mobile and Sprint have said their merger is pretty much all about 5G—they can compete more effectively and boost the U.S.’ 5G position in the world if they are allowed to combine resources.

Rather than taking a position on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger—something it signaled it would not do earlier this year—AT&T is taking the opportunity to supplement the record with information on 5G deployment in the U.S., including AT&T’s own plans and progress.

AT&T let it be known previously that it will continue to invest significant capital in obtaining additional spectrum to meet its long-term needs. That strategy comes as the operator earlier this year was looking to sell off what appeared to be nearly $1 billion worth of 600 MHz spectrum. That sell-off may have been related to AT&T’s winning of the FirstNet contract, which was announced last year.  

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AT&T notes in its Aug. 27 filing that T-Mobile has been aggressively upgrading its LTE network and using its own 600 MHz spectrum to deploy gear that’s upgradeable to 5G with a software update. Sprint also has claimed to be positioned to lead in 5G and has indicated interest in adding to its spectrum portfolio in upcoming Auctions 101 and 102, which involve the 28 GHz and 24 GHz bands, respectively.

“In fact, T-Mobile and Sprint both have more MHz of spectrum per connection than AT&T or Verizon; their parent companies, Deutsche Telekom AG and Softbank Group Corp., are among the largest telecommunications providers in the world, with substantial access to capital; and T-Mobile has previously argued that its lower market share is a competitive advantage because it enables T-Mobile more flexibility and speed in transitioning to 5G,” AT&T told the commission.

“By all indicia, the wireless marketplace is fiercely competitive and growing increasingly so,” the operator said. “This competition is delivering enormous consumer benefits, as reflected by sharply declining prices, increasing output, and ongoing innovation in consumer offerings. It also is driving massive investment in network upgrades and a race to deploy 5G technology among all of the major wireless providers.”